Did Bowie bring down the Berlin Wall?

Dec 15, 2008
James Woodall

The British rock star spent three years living in the city and a later concert there stirred opposition to the wall

You're a 29-year-old megastar with a string of hits behind you. Recklessly enjoying pop's loucher rewards, you're also a drug addict. What do you do? Head for rehab? A monastery? Die?

In 1976, if you're David Bowie, you vanish to West Berlin. For Bowie, Berlin meant German Expressionism, the art movement that exploded there in the early 20th century. That would be his cure. No star of his stature has ever done anything so extraordinary.

His health was extremely fragile. Trashed on cocaine, he'd been living in Los Angeles for 18 months and was obsessed with the occult. Behind him were world-beating albums such as Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs, but his marriage to Angie Barnett was in tatters and he was facing musical burn-out.

And so he took himself not to Marrakesh or Moscow but to Berlin, city of spies and, in its eastern sector, state-sanctioned murder. When Bowie arrived in early '76, just over 13 years before the Berlin Wall came down, escaping East Germans were still being shot on the "death strip" in the heart of the city. John Le Carre's evocation of fevered espionage in Berlin's dark corners was no fiction.

Bowie went from sexually ambiguous glam-rocker to introverted art musician

Britain's edgiest rock star obviously clicked with Berlin's spooky incompleteness, as well as with its danger. He spent, on and off, three years in the city, recording moody and experimental music at the Hansa studios for a trilogy of albums - Low, the better-known Heroes and Lodger - that marked his transition from sexually ambiguous glam-rocker to introverted, ambitious art musician.

The famous title track of Heroes says it all: a tender, anthemic single, its lovers stood "By the wall/And the guns/Shot above our heads".

Now, 30 years after Bowie left Berlin and his Cold War self-rehabilitation, Tobias Ruther, a pop journalist for Germany's heavyweight daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written a book about the period.

Helden - it means 'heroes' - catches the moment when the divided and isolated city finally shrugged off its post-war neurosis. "Lots of people went there to find something," says Ruther, "mainly about themselves. That's what Bowie did. Berlin changed him. He left behind him all those personae of the early albums, Ziggy Stardust and so on, and - apart from the music - he painted. He was totally inspired by Berlin as an art city."

“Berlin is at the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe.”

With him throughout the three years was Iggy Pop, who also benefitted from the city's spirit of creativity - Bowie produced The Idiot and Lust for Life at Hansa, widely seen as Iggy's two finest albums.

Together they hung out in racy nightclubs such as Chez Romy Haag, with whose eponymous transvestite owner Bowie allegedly had an affair. He drank and smoked heavily, but kicked cocaine.

"I hold the same opinion as Gunter Grass," Bowie told Vogue magazine at the time. "That Berlin is at the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years."

Another collaborator was Brian Eno who wrote six songs for Bowie and played on all three albums but did not - contrary to popular myth - produce them.

In 1987, nearly a decade after he left, Bowie returned to West Berlin to give a concert close to the Wall - and spoke German. Riots erupted on the other side. "The demos were really violent," says Ruther. "And guess what? A week later in Berlin, Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev to 'Tear down this wall'."

Ruther says these East Berlin demonstrations were the first in a long line of riots that led to the epoch-making events of November 1989, but stops short of suggesting Bowie had anything to do with the Wall's collapse.

On the other hand, he was one of the biggest stars on the planet, he spoke a little German and he knew as well as anyone the power of pop. Is it so absurd to conclude that David Bowie, ex-Berliner, agitator of - and loved by - millions, helped blast the Wall apart?

'Helden: David Bowie und Berlin' by Tobias Ruther is published in Germany by Rogner & Bernhard.

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